Indigenous advocates host townhall for victims, families of sober living crisis

Rosalie Nez traveled more than four hours from Coal Mine Canyon, on the Navajo Nation, to the Phoenix area in hopes of getting answers to what happened to her brother Emerson Nez, who she says died in a fraudulent sober living home in 2022.

“Emerson was on his way to recovery,” she said.

Nez shared her story during a town hall meeting hosted Tuesday night by the advocacy group StolenPeopleStolenBenefits about the fraudulent sober living home crisis. 

Nez said she attended in hopes of connecting with anyone who may have known Emerson or heard anything about his death. She said the family didn’t know he had died until about six weeks later, when a police officer delivered the news at her sister’s home in Tuba City.

“To this day, we’re still trying to figure out what had happened in the facility that he was at,” Nez said. When the family got her brother’s personal belongings back, his clothes were covered in blood, and they have no idea how that happened.

“We haven’t gotten any answers,” Nez said. “I’m just trying to find some information.”



Nez was one of many at the town hall meeting at the Phoenix Indian School Visitors Center who were looking for more information or help regarding the sober living home crisis that has impacted the state for years. 

The March 26 town hall was a chance for victims, families, and the community to voice their concerns about the ongoing fraudulent sober living home crisis in Arizona. 

Over and over, people talked about how the victims either actively sought help with their addictions only to be caught up in one of the fraudulent sober living homes or were taken to these homes and never heard from again.

StolenPeopleStolenBenefits Advocate Reva Stewart and her volunteers hosted the town hall to give victims and families impacted by fraudulent behavioral health facilities a chance to share their experiences.

Stewart and StolenPeoplesStolenBenefits, a volunteer group of Indigenous people based in the Phoenix area, are the boots on the ground. She has advocated for this issue for more than two years and has tried working with government agencies for help, but has never received any.

The group conducts outreach within the Phoenix area almost daily to help those displaced as a direct result of the fraudulent behavioral health facilities that have proliferated unchecked for years across the Phoenix area.

The facilities continue to target Indigenous people who are enrolled in Arizona’s Medicaid program so that the facilities can bill the program, often for services they never provided.

Stewart said she and her team receive calls daily from people targeted by these homes or who share the location of vans that pick up people to bring into these fraudulent homes. 

“It hasn’t stopped,” Stewart said of the schemes conducted by these homes, even though state leaders have commented on how they’ve addressed the issue. 

“The government is trying to make us believe that they’re doing something, but we don’t see it,” she said. “No one is listening (and) everyone talks about the fraud part of it, but they’re not talking about the humanitarian crisis.” 

Stewart said her team invited the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the Arizona Department of Health Services and Attorney General Kris Mayes, but none attended.

When Gov. Katie Hobbs and Mayes publicly addressed the issue for the first time in May 2023, they called it a “humanitarian crisis” and a “stunning failure of the government.”

Since then, the state has shut down hundreds of providers for behavioral health, residential, and outpatient treatment services after investigators found evidence that they defrauded the state’s Medicaid program out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hours before the town hall began, ADHS and AHCCCS released a joint statement expressing their appreciation for the work StolenPeopleStolenBenefits does to help the community understand ongoing fraudulent behavioral health schemes targeting Arizonans. 

“We wish to express our sympathy for those impacted and gratitude to those who are courageously sharing their stories,” they said. “It is an important step forward as we continue to assess changes that can be made to prevent Tribal members from being exploited by bad actors undermining legitimate behavioral health care services.”

In the statement, ADHS said it continues to investigate complaints about licensed sober living homes and intensive outpatient facilities. Simultaneously, AHCCCS said it is addressing credible allegations of fraud against numerous providers who are currently suspended or may soon be suspended from receiving Medicaid payments.

AHCCCS and ADHS said they declined to attend the town hall meeting due to the chance that facilities and providers who may be under investigation could be in attendance, which would create a potential conflict of interest between both agencies or interfere with their investigations. 

“We look forward to working with Stolen People, Stolen Benefits to create dialog (sic) and hear from victims and their families in order to hear and understand their stories and best inform us as we continue to address this issue,” the state agencies said.

Both agencies referred to their Tribal Member Exploitation and Provider Fraud Response Plan for more information about the work being done on the fraudulent behavioral health facilities. AHCCCS still provides a list of the providers that have been suspended on its website.

Stewart said she got the agencies’ statement only after they discussed potentially attending on the phone. She said it would have been nice if AHCCCS and ADHS had sent over their tribal liaisons to listen to the concerns expressed at the town hall. 

She said all her group wants is for the agencies to listen, but that did not happen. A lot of the stories shared during the town hall have been voiced by victims, families, and Indigenous people for years, and Stewart said it’s “heart-wrenching” to continuously hear the families and victims deal with the same issues.

Stewart praised people who spoke at the town hall as brave, and said she hopes it will inspire more Indigenous people and communities to stand up, because it will take them unifying as one voice to be heard or prompt change in any way.

That’s exactly what Louise Midwell from the Gila River Indian Community wanted to accomplish by attending the town hall. 

Midwell said she remembers being picked up from her community and brought to a house in the Phoenix area with hopes of getting better for herself and helping her addiction. 

But instead of getting help, Midwell said she ended up worse than when she went in. She found herself locked away in one of the fraudulent sober living houses for six months, never being allowed to go anywhere. By the time she left, her existing addiction was untreated and she had new addictions.

Midwell said she never talked about her experience with the fraudulent sober living home in the Phoenix area because she was too scared to come forward to speak up about how traumatizing her ordeal was and was fearful of speaking against the homes.

But after hearing stories from people within her community with similar experiences and having these homes impact her own family, Midwell said she wanted to help. 

“There are a lot of us who have been impacted by these human traffickers and don’t know it’s human trafficking,” Midwell said, adding that she wants to voice for those who may still be afraid to speak up.

“We’re not asking for anything but accountability,” Stewart said. 

The next major outreach event that the StolenPeopleStolenBenefits team has planned involves a day-long ride on the light rail and connecting with displaced Indigenous people to connect them with the needed services. 

Stewart said that is their best approach to dealing with this crisis because sitting in meetings is not helping, but getting out and talking to people is.

“It is frustrating, but that doesn’t mean we quit,” she added. “We won’t quit until we get answers.

“Until someone apologizes to our people and means it.”

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